Designing Business Models for Impact

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An interview with verynice founder Matthew Manos on his journey in impact design, a new consultancy, and the importance of thinking business model first.

An exciting new design consultancy just launched–but it’s not offering your typical architectural, communication, web, industrial, or interior design services. Instead, the 2-month-old firm Models of Impact designs business models for nonprofits, startups, and social entrepreneurs.

Began as a research project at the communications and strategy firm verynice, Models of Impact evolved in two years from a collection of social impact business models, to a free interactive site, to now a consultancy offering one-on-one workshops for those seeking to create sustainable organizations.

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Why focus on business models? Many new businesses focus on launching a product or service but lack the foresight to think about the legacy, longevity and sustainability of the organization. “By thinking ‘model first’–instead of just slapping a business model on a shiny object–we design for legacy at the very beginning of a project, and pave the way for an exciting future,” explained Matthew Manos, Founder and Global Lead of verynice and Founder of Models of Impact. This “model first” mindset is steeped in a decade of experience in and dedication to the social impact design field, which began long before the term was even mainstream.

A Very Nice Mentality to Design

Matthew’s journey in social impact design began at age 16 in a sunny California skatepark. A man in a wheelchair was ripping around the park far better than everyone in sight, which undoubtedly caught Matthew’s attention. Matthew made an introduction and discovered that the man was the founder of Wheelchair Skater, a nonprofit teaching children in wheelchairs how to participate in extreme sports. Matthew–who had just received his first copy of Photoshop–offered to design stickers for the organization, becoming his first pro-bono design project. That fateful day in a swooping concrete landscape set the course for his commitment to providing services to cash-strapped nonprofits.

In 2008 while studying at UCLA, Matthew started verynice as a graphic design firm with a unique twist – half of its services were given away for free. With only Nonprofits for Dummies as his guide, Matthew developed the “double-half” methodology: do double the work as a typical firm with team members who work on a per project basis as opposed to building a dedicated, permanent staff. The video below gives a quick explanation into their methodology.

How verynice Expanded Services Beyond Design

After spending a few years working on graphic design projects, Matthew noticed the value of fringe services built into his design process. “This is a funny realization I had my senior year of college, which was year two at verynice,” he recalled. “The more strategy or research that I showed when presenting the design work to the client, the less revisions I was having to make and the more the design meant to the client.” This revelation led to verynice including research and strategy as part of it’s core service package.

As the firm expanded and took on more projects, Matthew’s interest in research and strategy services grew and verynice began incorporating game-based workshops into this phase of work. “Workshops were a reaction to that typical consulting model where somebody hires this genius to tell them what to do,” said Matthew. “Whereas we’ve always been interested in the fact that our clients already know so much, especially when talking about the social impact space.” Using dice, cards, and even Twister, verynice uses the workshops to uncover insights with their clients that would otherwise have gone undiscovered.

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One example of this was a workshop around designing an e-commerce site for Made by DWC, a social enterprise created by the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles. Made by DWC helps women discover talents and develop skills through vocational training, which generates products sold to support programs at DWC. The workshop utilized dice to generate idea “mashups” for typical user groups visiting the e-commerce site and the users’ different interests. Matthew explains the workshop:

We worked with them to try to figure out their six key users, and then talked through the primary interest of each of user. As a result we had these two lists: one list of six users; and then a list of six goals that someone might have on the site. We attributed each of those six on the list to a different side or number on the die and would roll to do mashups.

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As a thinking tool, it really helped the heads of DWC build empathy with their users because they stepped into the shoes of what those people would want. It also helped us realize all these features that they needed that we hadn’t originally thought of. For example, if you roll and get user two and then roll again and land on their interest, that’s pretty clear cut. But if you get user two and interest six, there might be this huge disconnect that leads to the question, “How would that person be introduced to that?”

By injecting interaction and play into strategy work, verynice’s workshops have become a hallmark service that continues to attract new clients through referrals and word of mouth. The workshops have also become integral to how Models of Impact will operate in the future.

Challenges with Creating a New Consultancy Sans Design

Before launching the Models of Impact consultancy, verynice offered four primary strategy services: brand, product, marketing, and business. While brand, product and marketing strategy typically led to a design output (such as a website, logo, and campaign material), the business strategy didn’t. This is partly why verynice decided to branch it off as a separate consultancy. But eliminating design outputs is also a challenge for the new venture’s head. “A big challenge I’m facing is how do you start a company again but one that doesn’t do design work? It’s the first time I’ve ever done that. It’s this whole new thing to market,” Matthew candidly shared.

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Since Models of Impact work has been pro bono up until it branched off from verynice, another challenge with starting the new consultancy is identifying clients who are willing to pay for this separate service–and testing out how much to charge. Yet, Matthew sees this as a stimulating opportunity. “I’ve been doing verynice for almost seven and a half years and when you do something for that long you definitely start to itch to want to try something… something new that builds on what you’ve done. I feel like I finally found that thing.”

The Vision for Injecting Business-Model-First Thinking

Models of Impact is starting out strategically small with Matthew dedicating six hours a week to the consultancy. As projects begin to roll in, he will have help from verynice’s strategy and design team members. Eventually, his goal is to split time equally between verynice and Models of Impact and begin bringing on dedicated team members.

For now though, Matthew is focused on getting Models of Impact up and running. He’s been hosting business model workshops for different audiences, such as futurists and foresight professionals at World Future Society (Buckminster Fuller was a member), social entrepreneurs at Singularity University, and designers at Architecture for Humanity Chapter Network.

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New games are also in development. In anticipation of hosting workshops remotely, he created digital dice to be able to replicate the mashup game via video conference. Matthew has also been testing a hand-sized version of Twister that he hopes to bring to full-body scale:

You have a circular play card or a circular map, almost looks like a starburst, and at the tip of each starburst there’s a number. You roll the die to know what finger to put on what. We designed it so that the harder it is to stretch your fingers to land on a new number, literally the bigger the stretch it will be to actually connect those models. But if it’s very easy, then the models are already pretty similar. It’s a nice visual and experiential way of understanding how models work, how different some are, and how similar some are as well.

Similar to when first starting verynice, Matthew is injecting a new perspective to challenge preconceived notions of what a service company is able to do. His commitment to not only deliver high quality services but also to provide those services to clients who typically cannot afford it is steadfast. “I definitely intend for Models of Impact to have that same give half model. Even when I got married our registry was an Indiegogo page and we donated half the money to organizations. I think it’s something that’s ingrained in everything that I’ll do.”

Read more about Models of Impact in this recent article for AIA YAF Connection, or visit the website at ModelsofImpact.co.

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3 Responses to Designing Business Models for Impact

  1. Paul says:

    Thanks Katie for introducing us to Matthew! It’s the first time I heard about this model, and it’s definitively one that makes me question what I know about how business works.

    • Katie says:

      Happy to hear that you enjoyed the interview! Matthew and Models of Impact are great and we can all learn a lot from them!!

  2. Matthew seems to have rolled his own version of the Design Thinking model advocated by the d.school. It’s great to see independent evidence of this powerful and useful problem identification and resolution method.

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